The Rise of David Levinsky

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The Rise of David Levinsky is a novel by Abraham Cahan. It was published in 1917, and remains Cahan's best known work.

Plot summary[edit]

The book is told in the form of a fictional autobiography of David Levinsky, a Russian Jew who emigrates to America and rises from rags to riches.

Book I: Home and School[edit]

The main character, David Levinsky, is born in 1865 in Antomir, a city of 80,000 in the Kovno district of the Russian Empire (present-day Lithuania). His father dies when he is three, leaving him and his mother to fend for themselves. He grows up in abject poverty, he and his mother sharing a single basement room with three other families. His mother scrounges together money (largely from wealthier relatives) to send him to a private cheder for elementary instruction in Judaism and the Torah, because the public cheder are known for the inferiority of their education. When payments are late, the headmaster threatens to throw David out of school; his mother convinces the headmaster to let him stay, promising to pay every penny. Owing to his poverty, he suffers frequent abuse at the hands of the teachers, who cannot take their aggression out on the richer students. From all of this abuse, he becomes one of the tougher kids. But also he excels academically. Furthermore, he receives the respect of the other students after beating up richer kids.

Book II: Enter Satan[edit]

At the age of 13, David finishes his cheder education and begins Talmudic studies in a yeshivah. He meets and befriends Reb (Rabbi) Sender who has been supported by his wife while he spent sixteen hours daily studying the Talmud. Reb Sender is one of the most "nimble-minded" scholars in the town, and well liked by nearly all of the congregation. He also befriends Naphtali, another student two years ahead of him. David and Naphtali often study together at nightly vigils until morning worshippers come. During this book, David begins to feel an inner conflict between the religious instruction he receives and his growing interest in girls. He is often tempted by the sight of girls entering the synagogue. He also thinks of his childhood dislike for Red Esther, the daughter of one of the other families in his basement home. Meanwhile, a Pole moves to Antomir and becomes a regular reader at the synagogue. The Pole has memorized 500 pages of the Talmud and recites by memory, provoking David's jealousy. He begins memorizing sections of the Talmud, but Reb Sender finds out and questions his motivation. This leads to a physical confrontation between David and the Pole.

Book III: I Lose my Mother[edit]

David is harassed in the Horse-market during Passover by a group of gentiles celebrating Easter. One gentile even punches him. His mother sees his split lip and goes out to set straight the gentile who hit him against the urging of the cohabitants of their residence. She is beaten to death and dies that night. David is in a state of shock as he receives the sympathy of others while in mourning. He moves into the synagogue, as was often customary for poorer Talmudic students, and continues his studies. As was also customary for poor talmudic students, he "eats days" at the houses of benefactors, who invite Talmudic scholars for one meal per week. By and large, however, he goes hungry, until Shiphrah Minsker—a rich Jewish woman—hears of his plight and begins looking after him with clothing and money. Finally well-fed, he reapplies himself to his studies. He has, however, lost interest in the Talmud, and contends that "[its] spell was broken irretrievably." The situation of Jews in Russia began to deteriorate after the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 and anti-Jewish riots "were encouraged, even arranged, by the authorities". Many Jews participated in the "great New Exodus", and David Levinsky's thoughts also turn to emigration and seeking his fortune in America.

Book IV: Matilda[edit]

All of David's thoughts and attention have been turned away from his Talmudic studies towards America. He falls ill and is visited by Shiphrah every day in the hospital. After he is discharged, he is taken into her home while her husband is out of town on business long-term. He is introduced as the son of the woman killed on the Horse-market. In her house, he meets her daughter, Matilda, who has studied at a boarding school in Germany as well at secular Russian schools. She watches him eat breakfast and then taunts him in Yiddish while conversing with her friends in Russian, a language David does not understand. She talks with him and urges him to get an education at a Russian university, but he insists on going to America to work until he can save up adequate funds to finance his studies. Matilda is convinced and offers to finance his journey on the condition he does not tell Shiphrah. He realizes he is "deeply in love" with her. She frequently teases him, and when she says he knows nothing of love, she goads him on into kissing her, and he declares his love for her. They kiss several times on several more occasions, and she floats the idea of his studying at a Russian university, which he sees as a confirmation of her love. When word arrives that Matilda's father is returning from his business trip, David returns to the synagogue. He is torn up inside with his feelings for Matilda, and she stops by to give him the 80 rubles the trip would cost. David says he cannot leave, as he would not be able to live without her. She tells him he is crazy, gives him the money, wishes him luck, and leaves. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of his mother's death, he goes to the train station, and is seen off by his friends from the synagogue and Shiphrah, who gives him money and food for his journey.

Book V: I Discover America[edit]

The year is 1885. David boards a steamer from Bremen to New York and spends most of the journey praying, reading Psalm 104, and thinking about Matilda. He meets a fellow passenger, Gitelson, and wanders through the city. A man recognizes Gitelson to be a tailor and offers him work. David wanders about and is repeatedly called a greenhorn by passers by. He eventually finds his way to a synagogue and asks to sleep there for the night, but is told repeatedly that "America is not Russia." There he meets Mr. Even, a wealthy Jewish man, who recognizes David as a greenhorn. David tells him the story of his mother's death, and Mr. Even gives him money, clothing, dinner, and a haircut—including the removal of his sidelocks. Mr. Even also arranges for lodging for David. Before bidding him farewell, he asks David not to neglect his religion and his Talmud. David spends the money he got from Mr. Even on dry goods and begins to work as a peddler, but only manages to pay rent and food, and makes no headway. He changes to selling linens, but his heart isn't really in it. He is terribly homesick and discouraged by his peddling business. He spends many of his free evenings reading at the synagogue, but still gradually sheds his Russian-Jewish traits. His overall impression is that America is an impious land.

Book VI: A Greenhorn No Longer[edit]

The book begins with David's reflections on the other peddlers he interacts with while peddling, and the coarse and exaggerated stories they tell. One in particular, Max Margolis, takes David aside and tells him he is a "good-looking chap", and recommends he learn to dance. Max is older than David and frequently gives David his wisdom about women, such as that "every woman can be won, absolutely every one, provided a fellow knows how to go about it." Fascinated by this advice, he tries to make advances on his landlady, Mrs. Levinsky (no relation), even though he actually loathes her. She remarks that he is no longer a greenhorn, rejecting his advances. David ponders the distinction between love and lust. He tries the same advances on Mrs. Dienstog, his former landlady, and she kisses him once, and then rejects further advances, which David interprets to be "a mere matter of practical common sense". His work is only an obligation which he doesn't like, and he is constantly distracted. He even starts frequenting prostitutes, like the one known as Argentine Rachael, who also is from Antomir. The "fallen women" disgust him, but he still visits them, even though he cannot afford it and he is disgusted with himself afterwards. He enrolls in night school and makes efforts to Americanize himself. He learns English and is especially fond of grammar. David at first dislikes his teacher, Mr. Bender, but still tries to copy his mannerisms, and slowly grows to like him. They have long talks and David learns a lot about America and its history and politics, and begins to read the bible in English. At the end of evening school, Mr. Bender gives David a copy of Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. He neglects his work peddling and spends his time reading the book. After a few short stints at various jobs which he quits or is fired from, he's unemployed and destitute. He is however impressed by his own progress learning English language and by the English literature which he regards with awe. He spends a lot of time in a music shop listening to the patrons and musicians who gather there, and he borrows a lot of nickels, dimes, and quarters, which he is entirely unable to pay back.

Book VII: My Temple[edit]

After nearly two years in America, David has a chance encounter with Gitelson, the tailor from the ship. Gitelson is now successful and well-dressed, while David is poor and shabbily dressed. On Gitelson's urging, David begins an apprenticeship as a sewing machine operator, sewing garments from six in the morning until 9 at night. David hates the work initially, considering it beneath him, but as time passes, he comes to appreciate the value of hard work. He begins earning and saving money for the upcoming idle season, attending local Jewish theater, and continues practicing his English. As time passes, he completes his apprenticeship and begins earning even more money. Working 16 hour days and saving aggressively, David hopes to save enough money to support himself so he can attend the City College of New York, which he refers to as his new "temple". His ambitions are focused on establishing himself as an educated and cultured man, observing that "A college diploma was a certificate of moral as well as intellectual aristocracy." During the idle season of the garment industry, he approaches his studies with Talmudic dedication and views his work in the garment industry as a temporary means to finance his future studies. He has passing encounters with socialists and the garment workers union, but shows little interest.

Book VIII: The Destruction of My Temple[edit]

Book IX: Dora[edit]

David Levinsky meets Dora, the wife of Max, and becomes close with the entire family. Eventually David moves in with the family and he begins to develop feelings towards Dora. These feeling begin to grow as David spends more time with Dora. David and the family eventually move into a larger apartment up town, as was the trend to move up in society through the northern development of New York City. Not long after moving into the new apartment, David pronounces his love for Dora and they begin to engage in a highly passionate, yet secretive, affair of which Max is not aware of. During this time, David Levinsky begins to become successful after having received the back check from the Western company and is finally able to afford materials for his shop. Orders begin to increase and David does a lot of traveling in order to acquire new business. Upon returning from a trip, David bought a new bracelet for Dora, but she was mad at David because she believed him to be seeing another women. After having been reassured Dora accepts David's word as the truth, but Dora will not accept David's present for fear of being found out. Eventually Dora explains to David that she cannot continue as she is and does not deserve to be happy. As a result, Dora asks David to move out as he reluctantly does and continues to focus on his business.

Book X: On the Road[edit]

Book XI: Matrimony[edit]

Book XII: Miss Tevkin[edit]

Book XIII: At Her Father's House[edit]

Book XIV: Episodes of a Lonely Life[edit]

Musical Adaptation[edit]

The novel was made into a musical by Isaiah Sheffer and Robert Paul and performed at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in the 1980s.

The musical was performed again by the New Vista Theatre Company in Boynton Beach, Florida, in March 2007. New Vista was founded by Avi Hoffman, who played the role of the younger David Levinsky in the original production. He played the role of the older David Levinsky in the new production.

External links[edit]